“When they see my designs, people are surprised that they actually like them”

Romani Design

Erika Varga, head designer and creative director of the fashion label Romani Design, about her way from a social enterprise to the catwalk

Romani Design presented recently its latest collection at the prestigious Marie Claire Fashion Days in Budapest. A blend of daring colors and traditional motifs reinterpreted in an original way, the designs enchanted the eyes of the audience, who frantically applauded at the end of the show. The next day we visited Romani Design’s studio on Erzsébet krt 26 in Budapest, and talked to Erika Varga, the founder, creative mind and the heart of the organisation.

ERSTE Foundation (EF): Romani Design is a very young social enterprise, on a fast way to becoming a recognized fashion label. When did you start the organization?
Erika Varga (EV): I started Romani Design in 2010, after a two-year period of preparations. I was interested in combining two of my passions: the one for creative work and the one for making Roma culture more popular – the latter was actually my profession in the past. Before Romani Design, I was working in promoting the Roma culture, teaching children and young people in small communities, encouraging them to keep it alive. I also worked as a jewelry maker, so the development came quite naturally.

EF: What was your motivation?
EV: It was very personal and it came from my family, from my origin and my culture. I was consciously looking for different, new ways to continue teaching and promoting the Roma culture. I simply put together everything that I had been doing until then. One idea led to another, and, while thinking of creating a jewelry collection inspired from Roma culture, I told myself: why not accompanying it with dresses too?! I had the desire, the inspiration and the strong will to do it.

EF: Was your childhood a source of inspiration as well? Where did you grow up and how did you spend your teenage years?
EV: I am coming from a Hungarian region called Szabolcs county, but my family roots go back to Transylvania. We’ve been always following the Roma traditions, being a typical family of merchants selling antique objects, and going back and forth in beautiful carriages. I have very good memories of our family reunions where music and wearing traditional Roma clothes were very important.
I was close to my grandmother who inspired me a lot. She was always singing, sewing her own clothes, and she was also very good with handy work, for example she was able to make bricks and participate in houses building. She was very positive and energetic, a strong character, and it was really nice to be around her.
A big inspiration came also from my mother, as she was the first one in my family and in the community who started to combine modern clothing pieces with traditional ones.

EF: How did Romani Design grow into a fashion label? Who is helping you produce all designs? Your collection includes now very diverse pieces of clothing, jewelry, bags, dolls and other accessories – all of them inspired from Roma culture.
EV: I started alone but over the years I managed to build up a team around me: my sister Helena is helping very much and my mother too. Helena is making the bags, while my mother is making the dolls and other small accessories. Another designer, Gabriella Diós, is helping me produce the porcelain jewelry. I like it when people are around and we can share and think it through together. I need a team to be able to work.

EF: In the past you’ve been also involved in running trainings in tailoring for women, Roma and non-Roma, coming from different disadvantaged backgrounds. Do you still have time for such activities?
EV: The last one was a one-year training in tailoring and modelling for disadvantaged women, a Hungarian-Slovak cooperation, which just ended now. Trainings and tutoring are an ongoing aspect in my work, because I am constantly developing myself, my colleagues, and other young people who come here to learn and help. I would really like to have again an intensive training project. However, in one year it’s really hard to make a miracle. In one year you cannot really give a person a complete set of new skills and a whole new job. You need at least two-three years to help someone learn a profession.

EF: How do people react when they see your designs?
Since I established the fashion label I didn’t have any negative criticism – if there are some, they didn’t reach me yet (smiles). Those whose opinions matter to me are very positive. Since the beginning I had people around who encouraged me a lot and they were mentoring me and giving me very good advice.

EF: We all know about the difficult situation of Roma people all over Central and South-Eastern Europe, about prejudices they are facing in everyday life, and how this has hardly changed in the past decade. Do you feel this obstacle in your work as well? Do you think it would be easier if you were a designer that finds inspiration somewhere else, not in Roma culture?
EV: As a Roma woman, unfortunately I experience myself this kind of attitude and prejudices in my everyday life. Regarding my work, sometimes I feel that people have difficulties to just admit that they like my designs. They are afraid to be open about it and concerned that they would be judged by their peers. I think that people who want to support us are thinking twice before actually doing it.
Many times people are surprised by my designs because there is this general negative connotation surrounding anything that is of gypsy/ Roma origin; they think it can only be something worthless. And when they first see my clothes and jewelry, they are really surprised that this is nice and beautiful and that they actually like it. They go through an internal struggle: should they admit that they like it or not? But in the end they all choose to be positive.
Nevertheless, Romani Design really developed a lot in just four years, and, of course this is due to the great designs and great work, but also due to the fact that the context, the market is accepting us. It wouldn’t have worked without this.

EF: The show at the Marie Claire Fashion Days was amazing. How many such fashion shows did you participate in until now?
EV: We’ve been present in about six big shows, and in around 30 small ones. The bigger shows were in Hungary, while the smaller ones in Romania, Belgium, Slovak Republic, and Germany.

EF: Where can people see and buy your designs?
EV: For the moment here in our studio on Erzsébet krt 26, in the Museum of Ethnography, and also in the Kugler Contemporary Roma Art Gallery – all three in Budapest. We will soon launch a web shop and that’s a big step for us.
We are also planning to start cooperating with some galleries and design shops in Vienna where we can display our products, so hopefully by spring we will be present there as well.

EF: What is your dream for Romani Design, how would you like to see it grow in 5-6 years?
EV: Our dream is to become an international brand, to be present on the international catwalks – for example at the fashion weeks in London and Paris – but also on the international markets, with our products.

Main photo (on top, left to right): Gabriella Diós, Erika Varga, Helena Varga
All photos by Bálint Hirling, (c) Romani Design

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